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Awful Grammar

April 14, 2014
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The book of Job includes a lot of strange, poetic verse. However, right towards the beginning of the book (verse 1:12) most English versions render an odd sentence that cannot be blamed on the book’s poetry. In the NIV the sentence reads, “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’” This is hardly the sole fault of the NIV. The ESV reads “Only against him do not stretch out your hand” in the key portion of the verse while the KJV reads “Only upon himself put not forth thine hand”.

There’s a good solid way to say this in English: “Very well then, everything he has is in your power but do not lay a finger on the man himself.” This is how standard English syntax works: subject-verb-object. (Obviously this is slightly modified here since Satan is already being addressed but we still identify the subject, state the verb with its negative, and then identify the object of the action in that order.) So why do we get a nonstandard order in so many translations? Probably because it’s the Hebrew word order here. This sentence translated in an overly-mechanical fashion from Hebrew[1] would read: “And he said (the Lord) to the satan[2], ‘Behold, all that is to him is in your hands only to him do not send your hand.” (“Send your hand” is a common Hebrew idiom for striking someone either physically or with one’s royal or divine power.)

This is hardly the only place where translations retain the syntax of Hebrew or Greek. In fact these places are so common in many translations that I can randomly skip about the Bible and find them with relative ease. Much of the distinctive verbal feel of the Bible is the retention of Hebrew and Greek grammar. Paul’s distinctive style is partly just Greek style with its extremely long sentences. This might not seem like much to note except that we probably wouldn’t leave so much non-English syntax in place in any other document. Translation is, after all, not just about changing words but also fixing syntax. To translate from Hebrew or Greek at all one must rearrange syntax or the resulting English sentence will be nearly unreadable. So why don’t we change syntax all the way into standard English syntax? In cases in which we are dealing with the normal syntax of another language (i.e., syntax that does not signify anything special) shouldn’t we turn it into normal English syntax to retain the lack of emphasis present in the original sentence?

This isn’t the most fascinating translation topic ever. However, the reluctance to tamper with the wording of the Bible at all, even to fix non-English syntax in ways that only serve to make the Bible easier to read, is interesting. There are a few arguments for not altering the underlying syntax of Hebrew and Greek: it makes the Bible “sound right”, giving it the distinctive feel many readers have come to expect, and avoiding altering the text seems like the less-risky choice. However, it may be that choosing not to rearrange words changes the meaning of a text. The Bible often sounds quite formal partly because it uses slightly odd syntax and not the natural syntax of English. Do we always want the Bible to sound formal? Does introducing formality where it was not previously present alter the text?

Ironically, I’ve yet to see a translation that does not alter the text more significantly: both Hebrew and Greek often use pronouns in long strings without re-specifying who they refer to in the way English demands. When faced with “he said to him” for the third time without a proper noun translators tend to swap out a pronoun for a proper noun. It’s certainly difficult for English speakers to follow the original style but technically speaking deciding which “him” is meant by the pronoun is a more significant decision than flipping the order of a few words.

I suspect that the reason these sorts of translation differences come up at all is because Christians can disagree strongly on where the meaning of a passage comes from. If one believes that it comes from the words without any other influences then one should always avoid altering anything about the words if possible. If meaning comes from the words and the sense of tone they give you, which is filtered through your expectations for reading and your culture then the words need to be fitted to their new context. This debate, about whether meaning lives in bare words or in some more nebulous context, is more interesting.

I tend to think that assuming that meaning lives in bare words is overly-reductionist. It would be nice if every generation could be passed the same set of zealously-guarded words and hear them in the same way, but we know that this isn’t true. Even writing from a century ago sounds somewhat odd to us and so every generation hears the same words afresh which may require new translations to retain the old meanings. Of course, this requires more care in translating. It’s one thing to have to make sure to get all the words right but matching tone is much harder. In fact, outside of some of the more obvious cases it may be far too contentious to be really possible.

However, this returns to the question about where meaning lives. If meaning lives in the sweep of a story then the only real course is to know the Bible and its stories well. The false certainty of having every word right won’t do – we will need to know the whole of the Bible, its pacing and unfamiliarly-ancient style to understand the meaning correctly. Meaning may end up being hard to pin down in technical terms and careful specifications. However, this doesn’t mean that meaning isn’t worth pursuing. In fact, the difficulty of the task may signal the value of the reward. What might we learn from the Bible on the fiftieth reading that we missed on the fifth? Well, if tone and context inform meaning, the answer should be “something new”.

[1] Although not so mechanically as to be complete nonsense in English – Hebrew syntax is so different from English that a very direct translation would not be properly comprehensible.

[2] Satan originates as a name for the accuser and throughout Job is not a name but a title – “the satan” not “Satan”.

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